The first thing “Paper Girls” has to do is distinguish itself from “Stranger Things.” This task isn’t especially fair; this Amazon Prime Video series about a quartet of 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls in 1988 who accidentally travel through time is based on a comic book by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang that was first published eight months before the premiere of “Stranger Things,” another series about a quartet of ’80s kids dealing with supernatural obstacles. But it’s unavoidable all the same, especially in a summer when the newest “Stranger Things” season debuted to blockbuster-level attention on Netflix. Is Amazon’s “Paper Girls” perfect for fans of that show, or does it play (however inadvertently) as a cheap imitation?
The answer is a little of both: As a sci-fi adventure, “Paper Girls” is mostly lacking, hampered by chintzy-looking special effects and chaotic, unconvincing world-building. As an unusual coming-of-age drama, though, it has its moments—including some material that digs deeper than the big-budget ’80s karaoke of Stranger Things. But getting there requires an odd sort of patience: A willingness to sit through the genre stuff that should be the show’s exciting hook.
It doesn’t take long for this eight-episode first season to tie itself in knots and loops. The first episode introduces Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), KJ (Fina Strazza), and Tiffany (Camryn Jones), four nearly-teenage girls with disparate personalities and backgrounds who all work segments of a paper route in the Cleveland suburbs. Erin is the withdrawn new girl—that’s what the others call her at first, “New Girl”—learning the ropes on “Hell Night,” the wee-hours aftermath of Halloween, 1988. A tenuous bond has formed when the girls are jumped by hooded figures and drawn into pursuit of what they assume are a group of bullies. Pink storm clouds appear in the sky, and through some additional circumstances that are too murky to properly describe, the girls wind up traveling through time to a year that, for them, represents the far-flung future: 2019 (at least at first; another year gets throw into the mix eventually). There they meet a grown-up version of Erin (Ali Wong), and everyone bickers incessantly as they try to figure out what happened and how to get back to their time.
The fuzziness of the time-travel mechanics is probably intentional, but not especially satisfying. In general, the first few episodes of “Paper Girls” make for an inauspicious start to a sci-fi show, struggling to simplify both the narrative and visual scheme of the imaginatively strange comic-book source material. This isn’t all the show’s fault; the comic’s time-skipping plotting could be head-spinning, and few TV shows can hope for a budget to recreate a comic where jagged future-scapes and flying dinosaurs are no more expensive to draw than suburban streets. It was probably inevitable that the TV version would have to downscale significantly; it’s also entirely possible that the show might hope to unleash crazier visuals on a future season with a bigger budget, should this initial run prove successful.
In fairness to the always-overworked, time-pressured effects artists, not all of the show’s cheapness derives from its CG. The dialogue doesn’t do much work to distinguish between today’s colloquialisms and any attendant late-’80s slang; combine that with the usual tendency to make young characters articulate beyond their years, and this group of 12-year-olds from 1988 talk more like 23-year-olds from 2022. The show’s clunky work-around for language and attitudes of 1988 that’s both realistic for its time period and discomfiting now is to have multiple moments where characters take time out to repent and explain when certain words or actions from the past are “unacceptable,” just one more touch that makes the show feel rooted in the present. At times, Paper Girls becomes a cacophony of middling dialogue and confusing plot points. It doesn’t help that the first few episodes burden Ali Wong with the responsibility of being the show’s primary adult character, resulting in a fair amount of overacting from the talented comedian. Her sense of defeated regret plays more like garden-variety irritation.
Yet as the show goes on, especially in the back half of the season, the show settles down. Passages of downtime that might feel like wheel-spinning in other series turn out to be major highlights here. Erin isn’t the only girl who encounters a form of her future self, and some of these later detours are genuinely poignant: an unexpected revelation for brainy Tiffany, scenes between tough-talking Mac and her older brother; KJ wandering incognito through a party thrown by her well-heeled family; the girls coordinating to steal tampons. Though they’re often fed overcomplicated dialogue that doesn’t sound quite right, all four young performers at the show’s center do grounded, emotional work that fleshes out their characters beautifully.
It’s more than enough to wish that the more fanciful elements of Paper Girls—such an important part of its comic-book identity—had been excised entirely, rather than reduced to bad CG sets and a generic pink tint to signify retro otherworldiness. A show that’s willing to bring in a giant-robot fight sequence at the top of an episode halfway through the season and then transition into thoughtful drama literally moments later probably deserves some credit for eclecticism. But that doesn’t make the genre stuff work any better.
“Paper Girls” is less a ripoff of “Stranger Things” than an inversion: Rather than giving banal characters big-budget thrills and polish, it strands some well-drawn characters in a cheesy B-movie that can’t handle its own high-octane climaxes. Maybe a second season would allow them to escape entirely.
All eight episodes of “Paper Girls” Season 1 are now streaming on Prime Video.
For the record: A previous version of this review incorrectly stated the date of the “Paper Girls” comics’ publication.